Members Face 'Catch-22' challenges joining online communities -- Ben-Gurion U. study

February 16, 2021

Ben-Gurion University Researchers Uncover a Catch-22 When It Comes to Social Media Online Support Groups and Privacy Concerns

BEER-SHEVA, Israel...February 16, 2021- People who seek support online social media groups may end up not getting the help they need due to privacy concerns, according to a new study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Gutenberg University in Sweden.

The new research, published in , addresses the "Catch-22" challenges that face secure digital communities and their potential members, who, when faced with verifying their identity, may not join these groups for fear of sensitive issues becoming public.

"Social networks, and the technologies that support them, provide valuable tools for forming and maintaining connections that build social capital," says Dr. Daphna Yeshua-Katz of the BGU Department of Communication Studies. "While we don't dispute the benefits of these far-reaching communities, our findings reveal the problematic paradox caused by security concerns."

The researchers examined communications shared within support groups on several platforms, including eating disorder blogs, a fertility support forum for women, a Facebook group for bereaved parents, as well as WhatsApp groups for Israeli military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. After conducting in-depth interviews with dozens of community members and site managers, it became apparent that lack of anonymity and public visibility in social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp can marginalize those who face social stigma.

For example, to gain access to their online social support groups, Facebook and WhatsApp algorithms force potential members to reveal aspects of their identity they may not wish to share, including real name, photo, profile, and phone number. Moreover, on Facebook, all users are required to disclose their list of friends and activities. These default settings may deter people who are not ready to reveal their identity.

"Online support communities must guard against imposters whose presence threatens a group's safe-haven," says Dr. Yeshua-Katz. "The challenge is to find a way to maintain community boundaries without going underground in a way that removes these groups from the public sphere and blocks access to those who need support."
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The study was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Ylva Hård af Segerstad, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. The research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (grant number 958/17).

About American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU) plays a vital role in sustaining David Ben-Gurion's vision: creating a world-class institution of education and research in the Israeli desert, nurturing the Negev community and sharing the University's expertise locally and around the globe. Activities include showcasing BGU's academic excellence and cutting-edge research through educational programs, events and informative communications. AABGU's main purpose is to support Ben-Gurion's vision and the university that bears his name by creating a community of Americans committed to improving the world tomorrow from the heart of the Israeli desert today. For more information visit
http://www.aabgu.org.

American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
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